It’s very trendy to publish a book these days. Last year, 300,000 books were published traditionally, and more than 700,000 books were self-published. That’s right: over a million new books were unleashed on readers in 2016 alone.
Fiction writing has always been a popular creative pursuit, but it’s nonfiction that has recently exploded among new authors. Being a published author is now a necessity for any professional who takes their career seriously. Virtually every unpublished life coach, business consultant, advisor, therapist, spiritual leader, trainer, teacher or researcher is either writing a book now, thinking about writing a book, or feeling bad that they haven’t yet written a book. And it’s not only those in consultative positions who want to publish. Many entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders feel an urgent need to write a book that will act as an ambassador for their corporate or personal brand.
The rise of professional public speaking has greatly accelerated this trend. Those who wish to establish themself as a thought leader in their field knows that having their name on a New York Times bestseller is still the very best way to get there. Of course, not every aspiring author will get within striking range of that vaunted list. But even those at the back of the pack feel an urgent need to publish a book, setting their sights on Amazon rankings instead.
Self-publishing makes it possible for anyone to put out a book any time they are ready, even if their material is not. Sadly, novice authors who rush to publish inevitably wind up with an underdeveloped, poorly executed book that few people will buy and even fewer will read and recommend. If they have a nagging feeling that the work they’ve produced does not read or look like a “real book,” they are probably not sure why.
It’s no wonder there is confusion. The popular definition of a book has changed in recent years, especially in that blurry space between self-publishing and content marketing. Essays and white papers of just a few thousand words, richly padded with white space and graphics, are routinely promoted as “books” offered free to download from websites as an enticement to join a mailing list. Is this a real book? If not, what is?
I was recently asked that question: “What is a real book?” My immediate answer was that a real book puts the needs and interests of the reader above those of the author. More specifically, a real book is one whose ideas are well developed, and whose writing is engaging, clear, and persuasive or entertaining. A real book is well researched and its sources carefully cited. A real book contains front and back matter that conforms to publishing industry standards, a well-designed jacket and interior, and appropriate cover copy. If it has an index, that index is professionally produced. A real book is free of typographic errors (or close to it). Above all, a real book provides something substantial, new, and consequential. It has a big idea at its center. A real book makes a lasting impact on its readers. It is enduring, not ephemeral.
These are the hallmarks of a real book, and they are very difficult for a self-publishing author to execute well. The fault lies not with self-publishing as a model. The problem is that self-publishing yields poor results when authors undertake it alone and unsupported, or when amateur advisors counsel them to make bad decisions.
Authors who are pursuing a traditional publishing arrangement face many of the same challenges, especially those to do with editorial and marketing. Long before a publisher agrees to back their book, even before their book proposal is written, they must work out what their book should be about, how it ought to be structured, who its intended readers are, and how best to sell it to them. And then they have to write a blindingly good sample chapter.
Humbled by the size of the task ahead and their lack of publishing expertise, many first-time authors look for guidance on the Internet, where there is no shortage of courses, webinars, and publishing consultants competing for their attention and money. A few months ago, I downloaded a free “book” claiming to offer such publishing advice in the name of research. It was substantial, in a sense. At more than 150 PDF pages in extent, it chewed through most of a toner cartridge in my home office. However, it was laughably flimsy in terms of its content. Every 8-1/2 x 11 page featured several 24-point headlines, bold pull-quotes, an array of colour blocks and bands, and a scant 200 words of text. An entire page near the beginning was given over to acknowledging a particular intern who had helped “pull the content together” (complete with a full-bleed image of her). Several more pages were dedicated to pushing the author’s online coaching programs.
The title of this document was “How Not to Suck at Writing Your First Book”. Let’s all just take a moment to absorb that.
This “book” promises readers that they will finish writing their full-length nonfiction manuscripts in just thirty days — a masterful feat for even the most seasoned professional writer. In fact, it reassures us, it’s easy to “turn your daily conversations and knowledge into a high-quality book in record time” — just a few hours! — by speaking extemporaneously into a voice-to-text dictation program.
Its author is the creator of a successful online self-publishing course, which he founded in 2014 shortly after dropping out of college at the age of 19. His is just one of the thousands of online programs marketed to would-be authors desperate for useful advice. The express goal of many of these programs is to squeeze long-form pieces of writing out of people’s heads as quickly and easily as possible. They encourage students to overcome self-doubt with “empowering” phrases such as “You don’t have to be an expert to add value.”
For these guys, the Facebook maxim “done is better than perfect” is a winning formula for success. And maybe they’re right, if their goal is to hack through the chore of content creation for marketing purposes. What it is not is a formula for a real book.
This shortcut attitude bothers me. Not only because I care about books, but because I care about ideas. Expertise is under assault in the age of “alternative facts” and intellectual relativism. We are in danger of losing our ability to distinguish between what is real and what is phony, and I consider this a threat to enlightened society.
It is in this spirit that I am writing How to Write a Real Book: A Guide to Publishing Great Nonfiction for Authors Who Aren’t Writers. I’ve chosen to address this group — “authors who aren’t writers” — for two reasons. First, because career writers, from journalists to novelists, are already very well served. There are plenty of books out there to help professional or creative writers hone their craft. Second, because I believe that this other group — people who are serious specialists in a discipline other than writing — have the greatest need for sound advice. They are also the most worthy of support, and most at risk of squandering their own potential by being drawn in by low-bar programs aimed at the most impatient and least competent.
It’s true that not everyone who wants to write a book has a book-worthy idea, but there are a great many knowledgeable experts whose work deserves to be shared with the public. They’re capable of writing books worth buying, reading, and recommending. They just aren’t going to do it in thirty days under the misdirection of a self-appointed “publishing expert” who believes that true expertise is unimportant.
Writing a real nonfiction book is not a simple or intuitive undertaking for most people. But it’s also not impossibly hard. Aspiring authors need candid, unbiased advice from smart and experienced publishing professionals who understand their particular needs and objectives, and who want to see them succeed in making a positive contribution to the world with their books.
And let’s not lose sight of the ultimate beneficiaries of their expertise: readers. If people who are seeking specialist advice have enjoyable, mind-opening experiences with books, they will turn back to them, again and again, for support, instruction and inspiration. Our modern world offers plenty of ways to access knowledge and insight, but it still holds true that books — real books — deliver value that few other communication forms can match, and I believe that their continued place in our society is worth preserving and promoting.
When I sit down to work with a new author, I always ask them about their goals for their book, and invariably I get a version of the same answer: They want to make a difference in people’s lives. Very often, they want to change the way people think, elevate a conversation, and bring new understanding to a vexing problem.
That’s a great mission. We all want to have an impact on the world, and most of us would like that impact to be a positive one. But changing the world through a book begins with changing the mind of one reader, and then the next. Most of us are stubbornly attached to our positions, which means that if you are writing with the ambitious goal to influence public opinion, your book is likely to face an uphill battle. Those who already agree with you don’t need persuading, and those you hope to persuade aren’t interested in having their minds changed for them. So how do you make an impact on society through your writing?
Authors of mission-driven manifestos share some common pitfalls. The more clearly you understand and anticipate them, the better you can avoid preaching to the choir or having your words fall on deaf ears.
Pitfalls to avoid when writing a passion project
The Problem: Focusing on the Wrong Things
When you’re very close to your subject matter, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s most pertinent to readers who may be new to your ideas. As an expert, you’re likely to underestimate the value of basic information, which you might assume everyone knows (and which you might be bored to tears by). You may also have a tendency to overestimate the interest value of arcane observations and implications, which may be fascinating to you but not necessarily central to your thesis. This pitfall is especially common among academics, who love the intellectual workout they get from debating the finer points of an issue with equally well-informed colleagues. That will not fly in a mainstream book. Persuasive writing requires you to join the reader at their current level of understanding and walk them, point by point, to a new way of thinking.
The Remedy: Get a Tough Developmental Editor (and Listen to Them)
The deeper your expertise, the more you need a hard-headed developmental editor who is not afraid to raise objections and identify gaps or inconsistencies in your arguments. At this level, editing is about strengthening the book’s comprehension and logic, not fiddling with its spelling and grammar. The most common criticisms you’re likely to hear from your developmental editor are: put this in laymen’s terms; this section is beside the point; and explain why this matters. Although they must be a muscular thinker, your editor need not be an expert in your subject. In fact, it’s better to find an editor who can approach the material with a level of familiarity similar to that of your target audience. If your argument is clear and persuasive to your “smart novice” editor, you can assume it will be clear and persuasive to readers, too.
The Problem: Unconscious Bias
Manifestos are ideological by definition, so you will undoubtedly be taking a position in your book. But take care to check yourself for bias: it’s possible that you may be overly attached to a particular interpretation of the material, leading you to misrepresent the information, or present your opinions as fact.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine to express an opinion or take a position, and in some cases doing so may be central to the book, but opinion has to be framed as such. It’s even okay to hold a contrarian point of view; informed opinions can be persuasive even if they are outliers. But inflating your opinion or failing to put forth a balanced case will come across as manipulative, which will raise readers’ skepticism. Your argument should be, “This is my position on this issue, and here is some evidence to back up my claims,” rather than, “Trust me, I am right” or, worse, “Listen only to me.”
The Remedy: Invite Constructive Criticism
Conduct careful research. Lots of it. And be equally careful in your note-taking. The consensus bias means that humans are fallible to shaping arguments that shore up our assumptions. You can get away with that in a dinner party debate, but your critics will poke holes in your argument (or ignore your book altogether) if your argumentation is anything less than rock solid.
When your subject matter is controversial, it’s critical to test its credibility by sending out your manuscript for peer review to other experts who know your subject well. It can be very hard to invite other experts to critique your work, (many authors worry that their peers will judge them harshly on their writing abilities, or shoot down their ideas), but it’s imperative to do so. Solicit feedback from people whose credibility and expertise you respect, especially if they’re in a different ideological camp.
The idea here is not to reverse your position or even to soften it, but to argue your points more effectively. Readers are more likely to be persuaded by your arguments if they can see on the page that you’ve considered other points of view.
If there is a person or organization already preaching your gospel, don’t ignore or aim to discredit them—consider joining forces. Join the movement that’s already in progress, and be bold about making your own unique contribution. You want a book with an argument that is distinct from others’ but you probably won’t be saying something absolutely brand new, so don’t pretend you are.
The Problem: Excessive Negativity
At the heart of your manifesto is a problem that cries out to be solved. Seeing as you’re worked up enough to write an entire book on the subject, it’s fair to assume you’re probably feeling a certain level of personal frustration about it. You may have noticed a million different ways in which the problem presents itself, and a million terrible side effects. Resist the temptation to catalogue them all in your book, and keep your book scrupulously clear of bitterness and judgmental attitudes. Not only is excessive negativity a big turn-off, it’s unbalanced, unhelpful, and intellectually lazy.
The Remedy: Focus on Solutions
The best manifestos are more than polemical rants. They propose solutions and open new avenues of possibility. Yes, you’ll need to illustrate the magnitude and breadth of the issue, and might even want to inject a little drama into it. But it’s important to strike a balance between presenting new ideas and bashing old ones. To really engage readers’ attention and move them to action, you must give them an actionable takeaway, or at least a new worldview to embrace and promote.
The Problem: Forgetting the Reader’s Priorities
You may desperately want people to take better care of the planet, raise their children more compassionately, or contribute more to their communities, but do you think they care what you want? Of course not. They’re reading books that scratch totally different itches. Now, there are plenty of people who already care about the things you do, and you could write a how-to book to help them to do them or understand them better, but that’s not the same thing as converting new hearts and minds to the cause. Every reader, when browsing for something new to read, considers the question: “What’s in it for me?” And if the answer is: “a lecture,” most people will pass.
The Remedy: The Trojan Horse
Every ideological cause has practical applications that benefit all sorts of people in different ways. One of the best ways to persuade readers to try something different or care about something new is to find an authentic benefit that already matters to them. In marketing, this is called the “Trojan Horse” strategy: deliver something that they want, but slip into it what they need.
Environmentally apathetic readers might be persuaded to recycle more and reduce waste if you can show them how it will save them money. People stuck on a junk food diet might be open to eating differently if they learn that it will increase their energy and productivity. If they’re trying to lose weight, you can also show them how to develop a healthy attitude about food and love their bodies.
Determine how your philosophy or methodology might impact people who are less inclined to be interested in it, and show them why they should care. This might not seem like the book you intended to write, but if you get it right, you stand a much higher chance of altering the behavior or attitude of a whole population.
In this article, I’ve focused a lot on the challenges faced by mission-driven authors, but it’s important to remember that you also have some pretty amazing strengths. Writing any book is an incredibly demanding task, but your passion ensures that you’ll have the commitment to see your project through. You’ll also have a desire to make the book as good as possible, so you’re less likely to cut corners or fudge the details. And when the time comes to market it, you’ll have the enthusiasm necessary to talk persuasively about your book in interviews, and to champion it on social media.
As a truly interested subject matter expert, you understand your issue and its ramifications deeply. And because you know all the major players in that space, you’re in a good position to build a community of interest and support around your book’s themes. This is where your passion really pays off. Guided by the truth of your own experience and the insight of your research, you have an instinctual sense of who truly “gets it”. This will be immensely helpful when the time comes to build your team, bringing in the mentors, collaborators, and publishing team members who will work with you to execute your grand vision and make your mark on the world.
Manifesto Checklist to Change the World
How can you determine the marketability of your book idea if you are too close to it to tell if it’s viable? Here’s a short checklist of attributes that any manifesto must have.
- Bona fide expertise. Are you a demonstrable expert on the subject? If not, consider taking a journalistic approach. Interview people who are experts, and apply your own analysis to tie their testimony together. (Don’t just quote their books.)
- Solid research and documentation. Take no short cuts when exposing the status quo!
- A concept that people are already looking for. Be clear on your target readership and take care to avoid the conceptual pitfalls of passion projects.
- Awareness of your expectations and the real-life pros and cons of publishing. Will your professional credentials be called into question? What affect will a book have on your reputation? Will going on the record about your passion project help you live your values?
- Assurance that a book is the appropriate medium for your world-changing message. Is there a sufficiently “big idea” to warrant a full-length book, or could your ideas be easily summed up in an article?
- If you were able to see this idea objectively for a second, would you tell yourself to keep going? If so, keep going.
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